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MUSIC AS COMMON GROUND by Marty Gallanter

The young woman's expression was intent... dark eyes darting back and forth across rows of faces. Her hands poised in the air, ready to draw out the first notes of the anticipated music. But the choir wasn't ready. They were distracted, still settling in... not attentive enough to the director.

I saw the woman relax, drop her hands, smile, and suddenly bring her palms abruptly together. The sharp slap made everyone jump, but it achieved her goal. All eyes turned her way. Ignoring the stares of the audience, she focused on the choir.

"Just watch me," she said through the smile, "do what I do. If it gets screwed up, then it's all my fault." The choir laughed, but their attention was centered right where she wanted. The intensity of expression returned. The group drew a unified breath as her hands raised again. With one gesture, the music began.

They sang "We Shall Overcome," the gospel spiritual anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Black and white voices mixed, each affecting the other... black people adopting a piece of the traditional discipline of white gospel, while white singers dabbled in the less structured style of southern black churches. The resulting sound was different from either and still rooted in both.

The Civil Rights standard, followed by two traditional gospels tunes, was the end result of a week's work by members of the choir and director Shelly Dorsey-Ensor, a black woman in her early thirties, and part of the Union Street United Methodist Church in Westminster Maryland. Ms. Dorsey-Ensor, who works in retail during the week, has been involved in church music since she was a child, but never quite like this.

"It was a unique opportunity," she said, "to blend black and white gospel music into a single voice."

The opportunity had been presented by something called "Common Ground on the Hill," a kind of folk-music camp with a special agenda. The project was developed by veteran traditional musician Walter Michael and implemented through an independent tax-exempt organization headquartered at Western Maryland College, thirty miles outside of Baltimore.

"The idea," Walt Michael said, "is to use music and the arts as common ground for ethnic, racial, gender and other groups who are often in conflict. We have spent so much time celebrating diversity that we've forgotten to seek out areas where we share cultural roots. Common Ground offers a time and a place where people can study traditional music while exploring the heritage they share with other people."

The choir was the reason I traveled from Minnesota all the way to Maryland. Walt Michael, a friend for more than a quarter of a century, had recruited me to help organize Common Ground two years earlier. Sitting in his studio in Cold Spring, New York, we had thought up the name together. Later, Walt moved to Maryland. With the help of his friend and agent, Robyn Boyd, and a board of directors recruited from among his contacts, made his dream into reality. Now I was there, in response to his telephoned urging, to personally experience that reality.

The concert was at the end of a week of intense programs that focused on performing arts, but with Walt's special twist. During the first full week in July, the Common Ground program centered on the American racial experience. Some 50 students stayed on campus and studied traditional music tattered by some of the most recognized names in American Folk Music. Between the lessons and around the formal (and informal) concerts, Walt and Robyn constructed a platform for dialogue between black people and white people. It was eagerly accepted and with some surprising results.

"My wife Kim and I have performed Freedom songs for decades," said black musician Reggie Harris. "We've performed around, for and with white people, but we've never really talked about what the music meant. This is the first time."

I sat in on the last session of a daily discussion group entitled "Malcolm and Martin" led by Western Maryland College philosophy professor and author Ira Zepp. Black people and white people, from teens to seniors, spoke their often unspoken feelings about race relations. The trust and camaraderie that developed between the participants was something I had rarely, if ever, observed.

"It surprised me," said Lea Gilmore, black professional woman and Baltimore mother of two, "I said things I wouldn't even normally say to other blacks. I said these things to white people and they spoke what they felt right back... all of it without anger."

It was appropriate that this particular program be presented during the week of Independence Day. Still, Walt reminds me, the entire idea of Common Ground draws its strength from the arts.

"When a group of black people and a group of white people spend an entire week learning to make music together," he said, "they can no longer feel the same way about each other. This choir has found a common voice... and not just metaphorically."

The three songs by the choir may have been the reason I came, but it was only the first act in a week-closing concert that ran four hours. Every performer-instructor was given a time at the microphone and each related their own art to the theme of the gathering. A lot of songs were sung while fighting back tears. These often cynical, usually overworked, always underpaid musicians were genuinely moved. The long show took place in a campus lounge room where the heat quickly outdid the air conditioning. The audience didn't seem to mind. Another week of music, concerts and discussion, centering on a different topic, was scheduled to begin right after this one ended.

"I never thought I'd be able to share a real sense of the feelings we had in those days with my children," said one audience member, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. "But after hearing the choir, I think they might begin to understand. And I'm certain they can understand what we need to do now."

All of us, especially those who have lived a few years on this planet, have at least one memory of idealism that was cleaner and purer when we were younger. Mine was reborn in Maryland on a hot summer's day sharing common ground with friends and strangers. And they're going to do it again next year.

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